Gordon Campbell on Helen Clark’s sob story, and the persecution of Jafar Panahi
By Gordon Campbell
So former Prime Minister Helen Clark is ‘incensed’ at US diplomatic cables that suggests her real reason for sending New Zealand engineers into Iraq
, was to retain Fonterra’s access to the lucrative UN oil-for-food programme. Apparently, the speculation contained in
the cable had been passed onto US diplomats in Wellington by top level New Zealand Defence Ministry contacts. As an
audibly outraged Clark told RNZ this morning, this is no more than “plain gossip” and “preposterous” and according to
her, the oil-for-food deals played no part whatsoever in her decisions about our troop deployment of troops.
How every ironic. When Clark was the Minister in charge of the SIS, she was happy to use such gossip to justify the
issuance of a security risk certificate – as she did in the Ahmed Zaoui case. In collusion with Winston Peters, she
defended in Parliament the harassment of Zaoui long after the shonky, gossip-laden nature of the information relied upon
by the SIS had become obvious. And now she’s whining about being the subject of such speculation herself? Spare me. At
least she’s not being locked in solitary confinement and made to run the gauntlet of the New Zealand legal system as a
One of the great virtues of the Wikileaks release of thousands of cables has been to de-mystify the entire process of
diplomacy and intelligence gathering. Clearly, the so-called ‘art of diplomacy’ is nothing more than blogging, après
cocktails. But instinctively, we knew this. And if we didn’t, it had been spelled out for us in the 2004 report by Lord
Butler, which had castigated the unreliability
of the intelligence information that the Blair government had used to justify the invasion of Iraq. The lengthy extract
below from Butler’s report is still relevant – given the intrusive search and surveillance legislation that New Zealand
is preparing to adopt. Like Helen Clark, we should be incensed about the reliance on information that is little more
than gossip, dressed up for the legislative dance. Six years ago, Butler explained the perils of relying on info from
third and fourth hand sources, which is then sanctified by the veil of secrecy :
Governmental decisions and actions, at home and abroad, are based on many types of information. Most is openly available
or compiled, much is published, and some is consciously provided by individuals, organisations or other governments in
confidence…..much is at best uninformed, while some is positively intended to mislead.
Human intelligence reports are usually available only at second-hand (for example, when the original informant talks to
a case officer who interprets -often literally - his words to construct an intelligence report), and maybe third-or
fourth-hand (the original informant talks to a friend, who more or less indirectly talks to a case officer)….
Conventional oral reporting can be difficult enough if all in the chain understand the subject under discussion. When
the topic is unfamiliar to one or more of the people involved… in such cases [ there is] a considerable load on the case
officer to be familiar with the subject-matter and sufficiently expert in explaining it. It need only be added that
often those involved in providing intelligence may for one reason or another have deliberately misrepresented (or at
least concealed) their true identities, their country of origin or their employment to their interlocutors to show how
great is the need for careful evaluation of the validity of any information which eventually arrives.
The validation of a reporting chain requires both care and time, and can generally only be conducted by the agency
responsible for collection. The process is informed by the operational side of the agency, but must include a separate
auditing element, which can consider cases objectively and quite apart from their apparent intelligence value. Has the
informant been properly quoted, all the way along the chain? Does he have credible access to the facts he claims to
know? Does he have the right knowledge to understand what he claims to be reporting? Could he be under opposition
control, or be being fed information? Is he fabricating? Can the bona fides, activities, movements or locations
attributed to those involved in acquiring or transmitting a report be checked? Do we understand the motivations of those
involved, their private agenda, and hence the way in which their reports may be influenced by a desire to please or
impress? How powerful is a wish for (in particular) financial reward? What if any, distorting effect might such factors
exert? Is there at any stage a deliberate intention to deceive?....
[Much] intelligence is fragmentary or specialised and needs at least a conscious analytic stage. Analysis assembles
individual intelligence reports into meaningful strands, whether weapons programmes, military operations or diplomatic
policies. Intelligence reports take on meaning as they are put into context
Analysis can be conducted only by people expert in the subject matter…A special danger here can be the failure to
recognise just what particular expertise is required.
. Given the imperfections of intelligence, it is vital that every scrap of evidence be examined, from the most secret
sources through confidential diplomatic reports to openly published data. Intelligence cannot be checked too often.
Corroboration is always important, but seldom simple, particularly in the case of intelligence…The simple fact of having
apparently coincident reports form multiple types of intelligence sources is not in itself enough. Intelligence merely
provides techniques for improving the basis of knowledge. As with other techniques, it can be a dangerous tool if its
limitations are not recognised by those who seek to use it.
The very way that intelligence is presented can contribute to this misperception. The necessary protective security
procedures with which intelligence is handled can reinforce a mystique of omniscience. Intelligence is not only like
many other sources- incomplete, it can be incomplete in undetectable ways. There is always pressure, at the assessment stage if not before, to create an internally consistent and intellectually
satisfying picture. [My emphasis : this was exactly the problem with the SIS case against Zaoui – which selectively concocted a false
consistency.] When intelligence becomes the dominant, or even the only, source of government information, it can become
very difficult for the assessment process to establish a context and to recognise that there may be gaps in that
A hidden limitation of intelligence is its inability to transform a mystery into a secret. In principle, intelligence
can be expected to uncover secrets. But mysteries are essentially unknowable: what a leader truly believes, or what his
reaction would be in certain circumstances, cannot be known, but can only be judged. [Political] judgments have to cover
both secrets and mysteries. Judgement must still be informed by the best available information, which often means a
contribution from intelligence. But it cannot import certainty.
These limitations are best offset by ensuring that the ultimate users of intelligence he decision-makers at all levels,
properly understand its strengths and limitations and have the opportunity to acquire experience in handling it. It is
not easy to do this while preserving the security of sensitive sources and methods. But unless intelligence is properly
handled at this final stage, all preceding effort and expenditure is wasted.
Exactly. And is there any evidence that the SIS has been re-structured to ensure its operational activities operate at a
distance from its auditing units, which should then carry out a critical analysis of the information gathered? And to
boot, is there now robust oversight in place by, and of, the executive before it makes political use of such
information? No, and no. The SIS blunders on, burying its mistakes. While she was PM and SIS Minister, Helen Clark was
actively part of the problem. At least now she has an inkling of what its like to be on the receiving end.
The silencing of an artist
At the Cannes film festival earlier this year, Juliette Binoche and others campaigned against the persecution of the
great Iranian film-maker Jafar Panahi The worst fears about Panahi’s welfare have now been confirmed. Yesterday, a
kangaroo court in Teheran jailed him for six years
, and banned him for 20 years from writing scripts, making films, traveling abroad, or talking to local and foreign
This is terrible news. It is a reminder that whatever passions were aroused, lies told and craven government actions
taken here during the Hobbit saga, no-one’s life and liberty was at stake. It is not as if Panahi was a dissident propagandist against the regime –
he was a humanitarian. The issues he raised were universal, and applied not only to the regime run by the mullahs in
Teheran. This interview illustrates this quality eloquently
In films like The Circle, Panahi examined the injustice of social attitudes that can greet the birth of a daughter with
something akin to despair. In his most accessible and amusing film Offside, he returned to that same theme – of the fate of women in a patriarchal society – by filming the efforts of a number of
young female soccer fans to get into the stadium in Teheran to watch the 2006 World Cup qualifying game between Iran and
Filmed on site on the day of the game, Offside is a small miracle of improvisational film-making – and it is compassionate to both the young women and to the soldiers
who have been given the job of blocking them from watching the game. That’s one of the recurring themes of Panahi’s work
– that people will connect with each other, despite everything that a regime will do to stamp out the recognition of a
common humanity. In its finale, Offside is also a celebration of what it is to be Iranian.
Crimson Gold, a Panahi film that – almost incidentally – exposes the tension between Teheran’s morality police and the youth who
belong to the city’s affluent elite – is also well worth checking out. In this 2003 interview at the Toronto film
festival, Panahi explained his views to David Walsh
DW: Yesterday at the public screening, you described yourself as independent filmmaker. That is often a misused term in
North America. What do you mean by “independent”?
JP: Independent from any kind of dependency and coercion anywhere in the world. Independent from any belief I think is
not right. Refusing self-censorship and believing any movie that I make is, in the end, exactly what I wanted to say. A
lot of times, when you say you’re independent, it means economically, that you don’t get paid by other people. But where
we are, independent means more like independence from politics. That’s why I don’t make political movies. Because if I
were a political filmmaker, then I would have to work for political parties and I would have to go along with their
beliefs of what’s wrong and what’s right. But what I say is that art is much higher than politics. Art looks like
politics from a higher end. You never say what’s wrong or right. We just show the problems.
And its up to the audience to decide what’s wrong or right. A political movie becomes dated, but an independent artistic
film never gets old and is always fresh. Although I’m making my movies in Iran as a geographical area, my voice is an
international one. That’s what I mean by “independent.” Whenever I feel pain, I’m going to respond, because I’m not
dependent on any party, and I don’t take orders, and I decide independently when I make my movies. I try to struggle
with all the difficulties and make my movie. If I weren’t independent, I would say yes to anyone. But when I want to
make a movie, I’ll do anything it takes. And that’s not what government officials like. And the pleasure is much
Offside is readily available in any New Zealand video store with an art movie section. Now, it conveys what the loss of his
liberty and creativity will mean to Jafar Panahi, his family and the world.